Dornford Yates (the pen name of Cecil Wm. Mercer, 1885-1960) is a writer who thrived in the interwar period but who has never enjoyed a revival. He is usually linked with thriller writers of the period such as John Buchan, Sapper and Edgar Wallace. But their works and reputations remain better known. His career is reviewed in an article on the literary internet site Lion & Unicorn. This is by Alwyn Turner and is entitled “Imperial Fiction: Lower Than Vermin.” Turner makes the point that Yates wrote of an idealized upper class society that has now fallen out of favor. He was also openly anti-socialist and reflected this in his fiction. The same could be said of writers such as P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh up to a point. But as explained by Turner, Yates:
… had a problem that his work was set in a recognizable here and now, not in an escapist paradise. P.G. Wodehouse might jokingly title a novel Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954), but that was taken as fantasy fun, to be enjoyed in a sense of jokiness; Yates, on the other hand, seemed genuinely attached to that same feudal spirit…There’s also the lack of humour: the characters in the Berry books, in particular, are always roaring with laughter at each other, but there are precious few jokes for the reader. There’s also the fact that it took his publishers so long to bring out mass-market paperback editions of the books. And the sometimes rococo prose style that was dated even at the time. Then there’s the politics…Yates was a deeply conservative writer and had never had any time for the Left. The first page of Blind Corner (1927) introduces us to his hero Richard Chandos just as he’s being sent down from Oxford for beating up communists (he treated them ‘as many thought they deserved’). There’s never a shred of doubt in any of the books that the social order is as it should be, that it suits everyone really rather well, whatever their estate.
Waugh also depicted the upper classes in his writings and yearned to be accepted by them. But that didn’t stop him from satirizing them in his books and turning them into objects of comedy. Moreover, Waugh also hated the left and lost no opportunity in poking fun at them. But he doesn’t preach about them. Even his favorite target Tito was usually laughed off by being described as a woman, and Parsnip and Pimpernell were derided without being excoriated.
Turner does get around to Waugh near the end of his essay. He is here discussing one of Yates’ late novels Lower Than Vermin (1950) where he considers how the lives of an aristocratic family on an English country estate are wrecked by the lower orders:
Like Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Yates is using the image of the great country estate to chart (and to lament) the changes in British society – and I don’t think a comparison between the two novels is to Yates’s discredit. He’s aiming at an epic, almost mythic expression of loss, and for the most part he achieves it. Most importantly, and again like Waugh, this is not polemic but art; one doesn’t have to share Yates’s political perspective to feel the power of the piece, just as one doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Brideshead.
Turner seems to think it might be time for another effort at a Dornford Yates revival. One was attempted in the late 1970s and 1980s but came to nothing. A biography was published along with reprints of some of the more popular books. I recall buying some but couldn’t get on with them. As recently as 2015, literary scholar Kate Macdonald included him in her list of the Top 10 conservative novels in the Guardian with this recommendation for his 1931 novel Adele and Company:
The elegant, witty, masterful Pleydell family of White Ladies in Hampshire have their jewels stolen in Paris. Knowing that the French police are simply useless, they set out to detect and recover Daphne’s emerald bracelets and Adèle’s pearls themselves. The best introduction to all of Dornford Yates’s specialities: the thriller, the riotously funny comedy of the upper classes, and the novel of high-speed car chases. Beware of the high-octane snobbery, but it’s brilliantly written. (See previous post.)
As Turner says, Yates’ books are usually available in the second hand market at reasonable prices. He may well find a market among today’s Brexiteers. Turner mentions that one of his most ardent admirers is Michael Gove, who has this to say:
You can never have enough P.G. Wodehouse, Dornford Yates or John Buchan in the house. No matter how ill or upset you are, they’ll cheer you up.